A rectal examination is a type of physical examination during which a doctor or nurse inserts a finger into your rectum (back passage) to feel for abnormalities.

Some people find having a rectal examination embarrassing, but it only takes a few minutes and is not usually painful. 

Read more about how a rectal examination is performed.

What is it used for?

One of the most common reasons for having a rectal examination is if a man has a suspected problem with his prostate gland (see below), which could be a sign of prostate disease or prostate cancer

A rectal examination may also be required if a person develops changes in their normal bowel habits, which could indicate a problem with their digestive system. These changes could include:

The prostate gland   

The prostate gland is a small gland found only in men. It is located in the pelvis, between the penis and bladder, and surrounds the urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the penis).

It can be examined by placing a finger into the rectum. Changes in the prostate, such as swelling and hardening, can be felt in this way.

It is common for the prostate gland to become larger in older men. This can place pressure on the bladder and urethra and cause symptoms such as:

  • difficulty beginning to urinate
  • a flow of urine that is weak or stops and starts
  • having to push or strain to pass urine
  • a frequent need to urinate
  • waking up frequently during the night to urinate

Prostate enlargement can be troublesome to live with but does not pose a threat to health. However, it causes similar symptoms to prostate cancer, and a rectal examination is one way to tell whether the symptoms are caused by prostate enlargement or prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer can cause the surface of the prostate to become hard and bumpy, while prostate enlargement will not usually affect the surface.

A rectal examination is not a guaranteed way of diagnosing prostate cancer, so it is normally used in combination with other tests such as a blood test and a biopsy, where a sample of the prostate gland is removed for further testing.

Prostate enlargement animation

Prostate enlargement or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) is a common condition in older men. This animation explains what the prostate gland is and how it functions. It also highlights the importance of seeing your GP to check for prostate cancer.

Media last reviewed: 04/03/2014

Next review due: 04/03/2016

Men's health 40-60

Health and fitness tips for men aged 40 to 60, including dealing with a midlife crisis and how to lose weight

Page last reviewed: 17/01/2013

Next review due: 17/01/2015